The Iconic Wines From Spain Produced By Embracing The Failures That Lead To The Path To Perfection

Food & Drink

A young Spanish man from a family with an extremely successful business tried to define his life during his college years. His keen mind, filled with a strong curiosity for a wide range of subjects, at first put him on the path to becoming a doctor yet it is the law and law school that would ultimately take over his studies. During this time his family purchased a historically famous winery called Bodegas Vega Sicilia in the region of Ribera del Duero, in Spain, and so after law school this young man’s father asked him to run the winery. It could have easily become an impossible assignment as although Vega Sicilia was already an iconic estate founded in 1864, through time the vineyards became neglected and the neighboring wine region Rioja garnered more fame globally as a region as a whole over the years; the railroad built in the 1800s that connected Rioja to two important port cities gave it an advantage over other Spanish wine regions. Most other young men put in that position would have just kept the status quo – resting on the laurels of the fame of the estate while pursuing other interests on the side but instead he ended up devoting his life to the continual journey of finding perfection, if it does exist, becoming one of the greatest visionaries in the world of wine.

Pablo Álvarez

That young man who ended up taking over Vega Sicilia in 1985 was Pablo Álvarez who admits that despite liking wine he was “unfamiliar with the wine world” and so at the time, the winery’s long-time director, Jesús Anadón, helped him to understand the workings of the winery and most importantly, the vineyards. It was a “big responsibility” for Pablo especially considering he had just graduated from law school but he says that he was lucky enough to “fall in love” with the wine world and through all the intense ups and downs it was that love that has always grounded him when tough decisions had to be made; high quality standards would be maintained at all cost even seeming a little extreme to outsiders at times.      

From the very beginning it just made sense to Pablo to start to work organically in the vineyards, discontinuing the use of herbicides and chemical fertilizers starting in 1985 which was certainly shocking to his neighbors back in the ‘80s. Another thing that was surprising was how much effort and money he put into the vineyards considering that Vega Sicilia already had a loyal following but he saw that the vineyards could be so much more and so he replanted where it was needed, choosing the best Tempranillo clones within Vega Sicilia to replant – there are 24 different Tempranillo (aka Tinto Fino) clones on the Vega Sicilia estate. Also he brought in experts to study all aspects of each plot and began the slow process of understanding the best way to manage and cultivate the vines in any given vintage. “Today, after many years of effort, I am proud of our vineyard” notes Pablo as he has seen great progress through the decades and he is most proud of the people who manage it.  

Tempranillo

Pablo respects the fact that Bordeaux varieties are part of Bodegas Vega Sicilia history, and so there are still old Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vines on the Vega Sicilia estate that make up only a tiny portion of the blend in Unico and Valbuena 5 respectively, yet it is his deep passion for Tempranillo that drives him as he considers it to be “the finest and most elegant variety” and when it has reached an ideal maturation in bottle he says it is “the best variety in the world.” But also it is its affinity for expressing a sense of place (terroir) that also intrigues Pablo as he has not only delved into understanding each plot on the Vega Sicilia estate, as well as the rest of Ribera del Duero, but he has invested in the Spanish wine regions of Toro and Rioja and so he has taken an in-depth examination into the plots in those regions as well.

Pablo speaks about the different expressions of Tempranillo in different wine regions in Spain as being expressed directly in the different names it takes in the varying regions; it is Tempranillo in Rioja, Tinto Fino in Ribera del Duero and Tinta de Toro in Toro. He speaks about the “expressiveness” of Toro, the “subtle” qualities and “elegance” of Rioja and the “complexity” and overall fine excellence of Ribera del Duero.

Vega Sicilia and its captain, Pablo Álvarez, has helped to bring a broader audience of fine wine collectors to Ribera del Duero appreciating the excellence that is coming out of the region as a whole as Vega Sicilia’s wine Alión reflects the diversity of Ribera del Duero as opposed to their Unico and Valbuena 5 being focused on the expression of the estate of Vega Sicilia.

Striving for perfection at all costs is a legendary aspect of Vega Sicilia under Pablo’s leadership and even though he admits that he doesn’t know if perfection exists yet, that hasn’t stopped him from trying to reach it. He did not produce Unico 1992, 1993, 1997 and 2001 because it did not live up to the standard and in other years, the amount of bottles produced depends on how much of the estate fruit lives up to the quality as the production can range between 40,000 bottles to 110,000 bottles and the fruit he doesn’t use is sold off to other wineries. The same applies to Valbuena 5, which comes from the middle and lower areas of the Vega Sicilia estate slopes, and Alión, which is a selection of vineyards throughout Ribera del Duero. Alión has its own dedicated winery and each winery (Vega Sicilia – Unico and Valbuena 5, Alión, Pintia in Toro and Macán in Rioja) follow their own winery and cellaring practices depending on what helps to unlock the terroir of each wine. Pablo has even planted 50,000 cork oak trees that one day will allow them to make their own corks as well as have their own barrel cooperage at Vega Sicilia that makes 30% of their oak barrels in Spain as they can then control proper aging for the oak staves before the barrels are assembled.

Avoiding Mistakes May Stunt Evolution

One cannot help, especially after going through a tough couple of years such as dealing with the Covid pandemic, to reflect on one’s life and it becomes even more profound when there is a loss such as Pablo losing a business partner, Benjamin de Rothschild, who passed away in January of this year from a heart attack at the young age of 57. As Benjamin and Pablo joined forces to buy vineyards and build a winery in Rioja with leaving the overall management to Pablo and his team since he has the most amount of experience in Spain. But such a loss makes one think about their legacy and what they would want for the future when they are no longer able to lead. Pablo hopes that future generations in charge of Vega Sicilia and the other properties will do better than he did and that they will never lose their drive as they will have a deep love for the wine world such as he does.

And when asked if he had the chance to tell his younger self anything, what would it be, he said, “I would say to that young man now, ‘Life must be lived with all its ups and downs.’” But he would not necessarily save himself from the “failures” as he always felt the failures meant he was moving; he knows he doesn’t have all the answers and that one has to try various avenues to ultimately get on the right track. But he does admit that he would have liked to have done things faster, as to a man who is always striving for perfection it still doesn’t seem he has gotten close enough to that goal… although to the outside fine wine world, his achievements are awe-inspiring and they have no equal.

Tasting Notes for Tempos Vega Sicilia Wines in Spain:

2016 Macán, Rioja, Spain: 100% Tempranillo. 2016 had a hot summer yet it was cooled off by September rains. There is a slight amount of grip that gives it a bit more power than the 2017 Macán with good mid-body weight that had black cherry flavors and some dusty earth with a hint of spice.  

2017 Alión , Ribera del Duero, Spain: 100% Tinto Fino  (the name for Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero). In Ribera del Duero the 2017 vintage was cooler but had a warm, dry end to the growing season. An enchanting balance between being juicy with plenty of dark fruit and a touch of licorice yet still lots of vitality and lifted spices and pretty floral finish.

2016 Valbuena 5, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 94 % Tinto Fino (the name for Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero) and 6 % Merlot. The 5 in the name of the wine represents the fact that this wine is always aged five years in the cellar before being released onto the market. An inviting Valbuena that has plenty of lush fruit to make it immediately gratifying yet there is a lovely textural component to this wine that gives an overall elegance that is breathtaking. 

2011 Unico, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 95 % Tinto Fino (the name for Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero) and 5 % Cabernet Sauvignon. The ideal balance of sweet and savory with blackcurrant preserves that is taken to another level of complexity with fresh leather and bacon fat that has a wonderful textural balance as well with a good amount of fleshy fruit that is given a combination of finesse and power by finely etched tannins.

Preview Tasting Of Tempos Vega Sicilia Wines That Are Not Released Yet:

2017 Pintia, Toro, Spain: 100% Tinta de Toro (the name for Tempranillo in Toro). 2017 was a cooler vintage and so this Pintia had a lot of freshness yet it was balanced with ripe raspberry notes and layers of complexity expressed in bay leaf, tobacco and dried thyme notes that had fine tannins and a long finish with lots of finesse.

2018 Macán Clásico, Rioja, Spain: 100% Tempranillo. Pablo Álvarez and Benjamin de Rothschild decided to create a first and second wine just like the great Grand Cru Classé wines in Bordeaux. This ‘Clásico’ is the second wine of Macán and the 2018 vintage was warmer than 2017 and the wines are more expressive. A mix of black and red fruit with hints of cinnamon that had supple tannins and rich black raspberry flavors on the palate with underlying notes of broken earth.

2017 Macán, Rioja, Spain: 100% Tempranillo. The first wine of Macán and from the cooler 2017 vintage. A wine with a beautiful vibrancy and purity of blackberry fruit that had hints of desert scrub with lots of focus and drive on the fresh finish.

2018 Alión, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 100% Tinto Fino (the name for Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero). The 2018 is even juicier than the 2017 with cassis flavors and a generosity right off the bat with baking spices and sweet tobacco with firmer tannins.

2017 Valbuena 5, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 94 % Tinto Fino (the name for Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero). and 6 % Merlot. Pretty violet notes from the first nosing of the wine with plum and blueberry fruit with a more mineral intensity than the 2016.

2012 Unico, Ribera del Duero, Spain: 95 % Tinto Fino (the name for Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero) and 5 % Cabernet Sauvignon. More weight and broader tannins than the 2011 with a smoky minerality and forest floor quality that makes it extremely intriguing with a long expressive finish.

Unico, Reserva Especial, Ribera del Duero, Spain: Blend of 2008, 2009 and 2011 vintages of Unico; release date will be 2022. This wine had intense concentration and power but at the same time extremely well-integrated tannins and a delicate beauty that would seem to be qualities that would contradict each other but somehow exist in harmony within this Unico Reserva bottling. No set of aromas and flavors could do it justice as it is best described as a profound experience to have such power and delicacy all in one.

Oremus Wines from Hungary:

Tempos Vega Sicilia produces two dry white wines with their Oremus winery called Mandolás and the single vineyard Petracs as well as a late harvest sweet wine and varying levels of sweetness of the famous Tokaji aszú sweet wines. Pablo Álvarez is a great lover of white wines and he has tried for many years to produce a white Vega Sicilia wine in Ribera del Duero but it has not lived up to his standards and so he took the opportunity to invest in a Tokaj estate in 1993 as he loves their legendary sweet wines as well as improving dry white wines from the area. Their Oremus vineyards were classified as a “Primae Classis” in 1772 which can be equated to a first growth property (in Bordeaux).

2018 Oremus, ‘Mandolás’, Tokaji Furmint Dry, Tokaj, Hungary: 100% Furmint Dry Wine. Intriguing nose with a unique note that I can only describe as walnuts sautéing in sugar, salt and butter that had hints of anise seeds and honeysuckle with a combination of lemon custard and pineapple flavors on the palate that had a cutting acidity laced with a saline minerality.

2019 Oremus, ‘Mandolás’, Tokaji Furmint Dry, Tokaj, Hungary: 100% Furmint Dry Wine. Dried flowers with apricots and white pepper that was crisp and energetic with citrus peel on the finish. 

2018 Oremus, Single Vineyard ‘Petracs’, Tokaji Furmint Dry, Tokaj, Hungary: 100% Furmint Dry Wine from Single Vineyard. The first vintage of this wine was 2017. More nuanced flavors with fennel fronds and cumin seed with zingy green mango notes that danced along the palate like a graceful ballerina.

2017 Oremus, Late Harvest, Tokaj, Hungary: Blend of Furmint, Hárslevelü, Zéta and Sárgamuskotály. Orange marmalade with citrus blossom, peach pie and spicy finish and couple pair with so many different kinds of food as the acidity really off-sets the sugar.  

2020 Oremus, Late Harvest, Tokaj, Hungary: Blend of Furmint, Hárslevelü, Zéta and Sárgamuskotály. Citrus blossom, tangy lemon curd with candied orange peels with mouth watering acidity.

2010 Oremus, Tokaji Aszú, 5 Puttonyos, Tokaj, Hungary: Blend of Furmint, Hárslevelü, Zéta and Sárgamuskotály. Caramel, burnt sugar, spicy, coconut and rich with high acidity and extraordinarily long length of flavor.  

2014 Oremus, Tokaji Aszú, 5 Puttonyos, Tokaj, Hungary: Blend of Furmint, Hárslevelü, Zéta and Sárgamuskotály. Baklava with honey syrup balanced by fierce acidity and refreshing notes of lemon sorbet and quince paste with a very, very long finish.

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